Several things influence the use of insecticides, herbicides, seeding rates, timing, and especially technology tillage systems in today’s agriculture. The Minnesota Association Water Resources Council hosted a “Virtual 4R Technology Review” on Nov. 11. The 4R's of nutrient stewardship, or nutrient management, are commonly referred to when talking about proper nutrient application. The 4R's stand for right source, right rate, right time, and right place and serve to guide farmers to the management practices which help keep nutrients on and in the field.
Brian Ryberg is now a six-year veteran of zero tillage on his Renville County farm. During the Nov. 11 virtual review, Ryberg shared some of his experiences.
A key component to Ryberg’s system is a Soil Warrior, manufactured at Faribault, Minn. This machine can be used in the fall and/or spring. For fall tillage, 30-inch diameter cogwheels and serrated coulters produce a 10-inch wide tilled zone 8 to 12 inches deep. The coulters and cogwheel also mix fertilizer and residue with the soil. In the spring, each cogwheel is taken off and replaced with two 20-inch diameter wavy coulters. These smaller coulters till the soil only 2 to 6 inches deep in the same 10-inch wide zone.
MAWRC spokesperson Warren Formo commented, “Brian has become an innovator in strip tillage and cover crops. USDA Census of Agriculture data indicates strip till and no till/ridge till increased about 30 percent in a five-year period (2012 to 2017). Cover crop acres increased about 40 percent during that same time frame. So we know a lot of farmers are innovating new strategies in their faming. And Brian, with five year’s experience, has lots to share. Those 4 R’s of time, rate, source and place continually come into play … and fewer field trips are a big player for the Rybergs.”
“Yes, the way we farm is somewhat unique I suppose … my word, though others might have different words,” said Ryberg. “I respect their judgment and know many are curious about how we make it work. We run a 24-row, 22-inch row-width machine. With the Warrior each fall, we do our P and K and microbes; then in the spring behind our corn planter we do our liquid nitrogen program — two or three applications.
“We’ve been playing around with cover crops for seven or eight years, primarily after our sugar beet acres (corn, soybeans, sugar beets is the rotation). I’ve seen too many open winters with winds moving dirt. We started with cereal rye in our regular program and continued with rye when we transitioned into strip till six years ago. Cereal rye continues our basic cover crop; though mixes are now intermingled with other options depending upon the field. Cereal rye you can’t actually plant till late August and early September because it won’t survive summer heat. We use an annual rye in a five-way mix. And if you get enough snow cover it usually survives our winters.
“With cover crops we’ve had mixed results doing interseeding. Used with corn in our 22-inch row-width configuration, that corn canopy often shuts out sunlight. That slows photosynthesis which drastically slows growth of your cover crop. We’re seeing better results with cover crops between our soybean rows.
“We’re trying interseeding between our sugar beet rows — which are also in 22-inch rowsm” Ryberg went on to say. “So far, haven’t found anything surviving wheel damage from the beet lifting process, so maybe giving up on that idea. Some guys have tried late oats in August and I’ve heard some okay results.”
“Our budget shows a $15-an-acre expense for cover crops. Sure, we’re after better soil health, but that $15 cash flow is real with no direct ROI to cover. So you have to convince yourself, and perhaps your lender, that you’re doing this cover crop strategy for the right reasons.
“We’ve been involved with the EQIP programs,” Ryberg said. (The Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) provides financial and technical assistance to agricultural producers to address natural resource concerns and deliver environmental benefits such as improved water and air quality, conserved ground and surface water, increased soil health and reduced soil erosion and sedimentation, improved or created wildlife habitat, and mitigation against drought and increasing weather volatility. To learn more about EQIP, contact your local Natural Resource Conservation Services office.) “This year I signed up some acres to help offset some of the cover-crop costs. But after we finished our seeding we found out they had run out of funding — so no payments. Guess I’ll chalk that up as a cost-of-learning experience.”
“We’ve used multiple vendors for these cover crop seeds. Yes, seed costs do vary, so our advice: Do some shopping around when adding cover crops into your cropping program.”
Ryberg stated maintenance costs have not been an issue on the Soil Warrior. “It’s a bit pricey up front. Ours was about $300,000 six years ago with all the bells and whistles we put on. Yes, a substantial amount of money, but partially offset by a substantial amount of equipment we could then sell.
“So definitely a higher-priced machine; but considering the fewer field trips and overall reductions in manpower per acre compared with our field cultivator, ripper and other equipment we formerly needed, the economics worked. Plus the big bonus: significant rebuilding of soil health mostly due to these fewer field trips.’’
How does Ryberg measure soil health?
“My explanation would be cover crops take up those additional nutrients floating around in your soil profile. These cover crops tie them up; and then as that cover crop dies, those nutrients get released for the following crop. And cover crops don’t just gather up nitrogen. They gather all soil nutrients that might enhance your own subsequent crop. Plus this additional bonus: cover crops keep these nutrients from leaching into ground water supplies and public water ways.
“Cover crops are doing a lot of root health activities too. Cereal rye’s root mass is amazing. Agronomists tell us that if cereal rye grows one-inch tall, its root mass stretches two feet deep. That much root mass in your soil profile means your soil textures are being enriched in many ways. Cereal rye sort of works like tile in the soil profile.”
Speaking of tile, Ryberg said he still has some tiling to do. “Yes indeed, still a lot of ground waiting to be tiled. We bought our own tile plow a couple years back. We can’t get enough in the ground. If we had an open winter like our Illinois farmers often have, we’d likely be tiling all winter.”
The Minnesota Association Water Resources Council’s “Virtual 4R Technology Review” is available for viewing on YouTube.